“I Have Stories I Want to Tell”: A Conversation with Filmmaker Ava DuVernay

Nine for IX, a series of documentaries about women’s sports produced under ESPN’s wonderful 30 for 30 series, begins tonight with Venus Vs., a documentary by filmmaker Ava DuVernay. In 2007, Venus Williams helped achieve equal pay for women’s tennis players at Wimbledon. Venus Vs. tells that story. I spoke with DuVernay last week about Williams, her past films (My Mic Sounds Nice, I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere, The Door) her writing process, and making the art that you want to make.

Conversation has been lightly edited.

Venus has been in the public eye since she was 14 years old, and if you’ve been following her, you feel like you know all there is to know. What surprised you about sitting down with her?

I had feeling she was obviously the quieter of the two — that she was maybe not as boisterous or out there, a little more of an introvert. But when I sat down with her I was surprised to see that she likes to laugh, she likes to joke, and she likes to tell stories. She’s got a great personality and a very deep, wonderful intellect about her. She’s a smart, smart lady; she’s very well-read — you know, all those things I don’t necessarily know about her through her public persona. It’s almost as if she doesn’t put herself into her public persona, though: she does her work on the court and within her endorsements, and with that you don’t really know a whole lot about her personal life. I’m really proud of how intimate our conversations were — I watched thousands of hours of interviews with her to prepare for the documentary, and I knew going in that I wanted to strive for an interview that would feel more intimate.

In the documentary you deal with the moment in 1999, when Venus had to fight for a point after some beads fell out of her hair at the Australian Open. She and her sister Serena have had to deal with a host of similar scenarios over the years. Did you get the sense that she feels any resentment toward the sport at this point in her career?

We talked a lot about aesthetic politics, mostly around specific incidents that I asked her about, like her hair and the beads. The cultural politics, obviously, were inherent in some very key nationally televised moments where her hair starts to become the centerpiece on the sport. And it’s really clear that she’s worked through that. I got the sense that she used the memory of those times — when she was an outsider, and she was very blatantly was treated as one — as ammunition for good. Ultimately, if she was holding any grudge or resentment, I don’t know if she would have taken the mantle for equal pay for all the women in the sport, which she did very actively and triumphantly in Wimbledon. She took the bumps and bruises that came early on and turned it into something beautiful.

Do you have a sense of the story you’re going to tell in a documentary before you tell it, or do you let the subject lay down the narrative herself?

With Venus Vs., we were documenting a finite amount of time, and we knew the end of that story. The hard part was making it feel interesting, especially when you’re getting into gender politics on a network geared toward men. At some point you have to surrender to all that and just tell the best story you can. I just wanted to be sure we documented what happened. My Mic Sounds Nice is different, because you have two-plus hour interviews with all of these women with their own individual stories and commonalities and there’s no clear starting and ending point. That was just a little more free-flowing. In terms of narrative, it was a lot of easier.

How did you get into filmmaking?

I started as a publicist for film and television, and I owned my own agency. We opened [DVA Media + Marketing] in 1999, when I was 27 years old. Before that, I had worked for studios and for a couple PR firms, and I had been a publicist for other filmmakers. I’ve always been someone who loves films, and at some point, I decided I would try and make my own. My first film was a documentary I made about some really interesting people that I knew in the south central LA area, where I’m from.

It was a very gradual process, and that’s one of the things that I really like to share with folks. It wasn’t like there was a beam of light that came down and gave me a career; it was a gradual process with a step-by-step transition that eventually lead somewhere. I always tell people, I made three films before I even gave up my publicity job. When my first film was released in theaters, I went to see it, and then I went to work the next Monday. It took time to find my way. It’s not as frequently about one moment as it is about a series of moments.

Your films feature a lot of close, female friendships. Is that intentional in your scripts, or do those relationships naturally find their way into the stories you’re telling?

I don’t consciously write about female relationships. I grew up in a family of predominantly women in the black community. I was the oldest of five — I have two brothers and two sisters who I’m really close with — and I was very much nurtured by women. My aunt, Denise Sexton, was an amazing woman. She was very well read and very bright; she loved the arts, theater, sculpture, painting, film — anything and everything, she loved. She really gifted me with an appreciation for that, as well. It’s an amazing gift to be given, really, that kind of immersive hand-held introduction to the arts by someone who really loved it. But a lot of women of all colors have been in my life, and when I think our bonds and our friendships and our times together, I know those are all times that are organic. So it’s nothing intentional, it just comes out of the stories I’m interested in telling.

I’d say I’m interested in all kinds of love stories. One of my favorite love stories from my films is a small piece in I Will Follow, and it’s between two black men — a couple that comes to greet the main character as she’s grieving. I think I’m super, super interested in black people and showing complexities in the buried instances of our love for one another, whether it’s friendship between women or romantic love between men or generational. It’s just something that I’ve not seen enough of.

Tell me about your writing process.

Well, I hate to write. That would be the beginning of my process. I hate hearing people who say, oh, I wake up in the morning and sit down and I just write the first things in my head — I’m like, shut up. It really is a challenge for me. Once I’m doing it, fine, maybe it comes easier to me than something else, but — and I’m going off now — if I never had to write another script I would not miss it.

The challenge there, of course, is that I have stories I want to tell, and they’re not being written. So I gotta do it. I gotta sit there and go through it. It’s a painful process, not in the fact that I can’t do it, just in the fact that I would so much rather be somewhere else than sitting at my desk writing. Maybe that’ll change. But I know that I love making films, and what I’ve really learned is that the process for me comes in the editing room. In the editing room I can remake a whole story. The script is really a guide, and through it I collect all those scenes and words, and once I’ve done that I can make it into in anything I want. I think that’s helping me to appreciate the writing process more for what it is, where it’s more fluid — it doesn’t ever have to be the be-all and end-all, and I don’t have to torture myself. I just have to get into the editing room, and that’s where I’ll shape it myself.

You funded your first feature film, I Will Follow, out of your own pocket. Was that by necessity, or was it to make the movie you wanted to make?

With all my work, I’m really focused on independence, and I’d argue there’s no better time for it. The traditional walls are collapsing, whether it’s in publishing or music and especially film. Everything is being disrupted. It’s a great time to be a black female, or female filmmaker. This is the time where we can pick up our cameras and make the films we want to make.

That’s how AFFRM [African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, the distribution collective DuVernay founded] came about. For a while I was traveling around film festivals, and I’d come across people who really cared about what I was interested in — people who are concerned about black cinema’s image, and in what it was doing not just to our community, but to society at large — by not seeing images properly nuanced on the screen, by continuously being exposed to caricature, and by selling this un-evolved view of who we are. We were concerned about what that does to all of us. It’s not that films weren’t being made, it’s that we didn’t feel there was a connection to the audience. We’re trying to find a way to get films to people who need to see them. We’re three years in now, and we’re on our sixth film. I like to say we release two films a year “by hand,” with these handmade campaigns where people really put films on their backs and carry them.

What advice would you give someone who doesn’t see an opening for the art they’re interested in producing?

I think if you don’t see an opening, you’re looking in the wrong places. I’ll always say, why do you want an opening over there, where someone has to create a window for you, if you can create your own house over here? All the tools are there for you to make it. I travel around and talk to people and I know how it can feel — that wanting something that is not for you is like the definition of insanity. Because it’s been proven that this career is not for you, it’s been proven that you’re not welcome there, and it’s been proven that you’re not going to be nourished there, and yet you still want to go there. It’s insanity, I know. But you have to want to create your own work in your own image. We’ve got so much more going for us than filmmakers had even 10 years ago. There’s no excuse to say there’s no opening over there. If someone told me that, my first question would be, well, why are you looking over there?

Venus Vs. premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.

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